September 3, 2006
The Jagged World
By DAVID BROOKS
I don’t know about you, but while the events of the past five years haven’t really changed the patterns of my everyday life, they’ve certainly transformed the way I see the world.
I used to see the world as a landscape of rolling hills. There were different nations, tribes and societies, but the slopes connecting those groups were gradual and hospitable. It seemed relatively easy to travel from society to society, to understand and commune with one another.
Globalization seemed to be driving events, the integration of markets, communications and people. It seemed to be creating, with fits and starts, globalized individuals, who had one foot in a particular culture and another foot in a shared flow of movies, music, products and ideas.
Brooks was living in a rarified atmosphere. Out in the real world, there were masses opposed to a globalization that seemed only to benefit large corporations and the very wealthy. Because people with money and power, philosophizing from comfy leather recliners, haven't a clue how others live, Brooks could think his worldview was the only one.
I spent much of the 1990’s (that most deceptive decade) abroad — in Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. People everywhere seemed to want the same things: to live in normal societies, to be free, to give their children better lives.
They still do. Al Queda and the Bush Administration, hand in hand, threw a monkey wrench into the world's politics, a perfect storm that upset the balance that seemed to be achieved in the Clinton years. But Brooks doesn't see the world like that: it would mean that short-term actions have long-term consequences and one has to think twice before embarking on elective wars, for example.
Now it seems that was an oversimplified view of human nature. It’s true people everywhere want to satisfy their desires, but they also require moral systems that will restrain and give shape to their desires. It’s true people everywhere love their children, but they also require respect and recognition and they will sacrifice their own lives, and even their children’s lives, in wars for status. It’s true people everywhere hate oppression, but they also require identity, and human beings build identities by collectively hating groups that represent what they are not.
Brooks must have been living in a bubble. Frankly, nothing's changed in the past five years. Brooks seems to have forgotten the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, and genocide in Rwanda during the '90s, not to mention the troubles in Ireland for half a century, World Wars One and Two, the Korean War, Vietnam, going back to earlier centuries from the Hundred Years War to the Inquisition.
All these other parts of human nature impel people to become tribal. People form groups to realize their need for status, moral order and identity. The differences between these groups can be vast and irreconcilable.
Now my mental image of the landscape of humanity is not made up of rolling hills. It’s filled with chasms, crevices, jagged cliffs and dark forests. The wildernesses between groups seem stark and perilous.
People who live in societies where authority is united — as under Islam — are really different from people who live in societies where authority is divided.
Iranian-Americans with relatives back home would be hard-pressed to agree with this.
People in honor societies — where someone will kill his sister because she has become polluted by rape — are different from people in societies where people are judged by individual intentions.
Many fundamentalist Christians in America would like to start stoning homosexuals again. Is that much different from people from "honor societies"?
People who live in societies where the past dominates the present are different from people who live in societies where the future dominates the present.
Samuel Huntington once looked at the vast differences between groups and theorized that humanity is riven into different civilizations. That’s close but not quite right. Today’s divisions aren’t permanent. Instead, groups are constantly being formed and revised in a process of Schumpeterian creative destruction.
Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950). In his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. From Wikipedia: He believed “the intellectual and social climate needed to allow entrepreneurship to thrive will not exist in advanced capitalism and it will be succeeded by socialism of some form or another. There will not be a revolution, but merely a trend in parliaments to elect social democratic parties of one stripe or another. He argued that capitalism will collapse from within as democratic majorities will vote themselves the creation of a welfare state and place restrictions upon entrepreneurship that will burden and destroy the capitalist structure.” Samuel Huntington is the author of “The Clash of Civilizations” and is currently one of Brooks’ favorite political scientists.
Yesterday’s high-tech entrepreneurs look like pikers compared to the social entrepreneurs of today. Islamist entrepreneurs have quickly built the world’s most vibrant and destructive movement by combining old teachings, invented traditions, imagined purities and new technologies. The five most important people in the Arab world, according to a recent survey, are the leaders of Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Microsoft’s market conquest is nothing compared to that.
Other and more benign groups are being created as well: Pentecostal sects, MoveOn.org, Hugo Chávez populists and whatever groups are invisibly forming among left-behind peasants in India and China.
MoveOn.org? After a few moments in the philosophy zone, we’re back in Republican propaganda territory. MoveOn is nothing more or less than a typical political PAC, a liberal outgrowth of resistance to a right-wing administration, just as groups like SDS, the Young Republicans, Americans for Democratic Action, People for the American Way, the Christian Coalition et al were outgrowths on both sides of resistance to earlier administrations. Brooks is, as they say, full of shit.
The chief driver of events right now is not only globalization — the integration of economies and peoples. It’s also the contest among cultures over the power of consecration — the power to define what is right and wrong. Rising hegemons like Iran (and the U.S.) see themselves not only as nations but also as moral movements.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has had little success in influencing distant groups. Americans blew the postwar administration of Iraq because they assumed they were liberating a nation sort of like their own.
The original plan for Iraq, which called for protection of the infrastructure and a quick end to American involvement, was superseded by the neocons’ attempt to create a pure capitalist zone in Iraq (as per James Fallows, Robert Kaplan and others). Paul Bremer was brought in, the army was dispersed, the bureaucracy was canned, the infrastructure was never rebuilt, and Halliburton and other contractors stole billions of dollars in American taxpayer money. No country would survive that kind of dismembering without wholesale rebellion. Brooks is rewriting history, and he knows it.
And yet I can’t seem to renounce my own group, which is America. It would feel like cultural suicide to repress the central truths of my society, that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights and democracy is the most just and effective form of government.
The hard lesson of the last five years — that we live in a jagged world filled with starkly different and contesting groups — makes democracy promotion more difficult but more necessary. Only democratic habits will prevent the inevitable clash of the tribes from turning into a war of nuclear annihilation.
It wasn’t “America” that believed in all that Brooks talks about: it was the neocons. It wasn’t “Iraq” that couldn’t handle American democracy; it was the Bush Administration that screwed up the occupation. It’s quite possible, perhaps likely, that under the best of circumstances Iraq would have imploded. But we’ll never know.
September 2, 2006
Can This Party Be Saved?
By JOHN TIERNEY
Republicans in Washington did not abandon their principles lightly. When they embraced “compassionate conservatism,” when they started spending like Democrats, most of them didn’t claim to suddenly love big government.
Thus the problem with the Republican budget deficit is not the Iraq War or tax cuts for the wealthy; it's too many social programs put forward by Republicans.
No, they were just being practical. The party’s strategists explained that the small-government mantra didn’t cut it with voters anymore. Forget eliminating the Department of Education — double its budget and expand its power. Stop complaining about middle-class entitlements — create a new one for prescription drugs. Instead of obsessing about government waste, bring home the bacon.
As his examples, Tierney mentions the two, and only two, expensive social programs put forward by the Bush Administration. And each has its difficulties: "No Child Left Behind" has been severely underfunded (and thus is not part of the problem); and the expensive drug program has turned out to be a boondoggle for seniors and a cash cow for Big Pharma. The lie here is that "compassionate conservatism," one way or another, actually exists.
But as long as we’re being practical, what do Republicans have to show for their largess? Passing the drug benefit and the No Child Left Behind Act gave them a slight boost in the polls on those issues, but not for long. When voters this year were asked in a New York Times/CBS News Poll which party they trusted to handle education and prescription drugs, the Republicans scored even worse than they did before those bills had been passed.
Because both bills turned out to be disasters, and there were no others. The Republican Congress couldn't even raise the minimum wage slightly without tying it into elimination of the Estate Tax.
Meanwhile, they’ve developed a new problem: holding the party together. As Ryan Sager argues in his new book, “The Elephant in the Room,” the G.O.P. is sacrificing its future by breaking up the coalition that brought it to power.
The full title of Sager's book is "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party." Sager, by the way, comes out of the libertarian Cato Institute (part of the libertarian wing of the right-wing funding hydra).
A half-century ago, during the Republicans’ days in the wilderness, a National Review columnist named Frank Meyer championed a strategy that came to be known as fusionism. He appealed to traditionalist conservatives to work with libertarians. It wasn’t an easy sell. The traditionalists wanted to rescue America from decadence, while the libertarians just wanted be left alone to pursue their own happiness — which often sounded to the traditionalists like decadence.
Meyer acknowledged the fears that libertarianism could lead to “anarchy and nihilism,” but he also saw the dangers of traditionalists’ schemes for moral regeneration.
“If the state is endowed with the power to enforce virtue,” he wrote, “the men who hold that power will enforce their own concepts as virtuous.” The path to both freedom and virtue was the fusionist compromise: smaller government.
It's not clear if this comes out of Sager, or if Tierney read Meyer. In any event, conservatives are better defined by John W. Dean in the opening paragraphs of his new book. This analysis seems awfully glib.
The coalition started with Barry Goldwater but persevered to elect Ronald Reagan and take over Congress. .
Something happened in 1980. Republicans brought evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into the fold and Reagan was elected. This group became the grass-roots outpost of the Republican Party and the result was a theocratic takeover of the G.O.P. and hence of the U.S. government by the new century. This is the central feature of Sager's book, and something Tierney chooses to ignore throughout this column. Talk about an elephant in the room...
But then Republicans’ faith in small government waned, partly because they discovered the perks of incumbency, and partly because they were outmaneuvered by Bill Clinton, who took their ideas (welfare reform, a balanced budget) and embarrassed them during the government shutdown of 1995. The shutdown didn’t permanently traumatize the public. In poll after poll since then, respondents have preferred smaller government and fewer services.
A quick look at Google ("smaller government" poll) supports this claim, though virtually all the articles here come from right-wing foundations like Cato, Heartland et al. But what does "smaller government" mean? Does it mean less government intereference with private lives? Less regulation of large corporations? Less repair of potholes? An end to social security? The notion is really a talking point, not a political philosophy.
But the experience scared Republicans so much that they became big-government conservatives.
Either Tierney or Sager is stretching here. The shutdown traumatized the public because it seemed mean-spirited and partisan. It was a power grab that failed. It had nothing to do with big government or small government. Republicans had taken over Congress a year before and Gingrich overreached.
Soccer moms were promised social programs; the religious right got moral rhetoric and cash for faith-based initiatives. Meyer’s warnings about enforcing virtue were forgotten, along with the traditional Republican preference for states’ rights. It became a federal responsibility to preach sexual abstinence to teenagers and stop states from legalizing euthanasia, medical marijuana and, worst of all, gay marriage.
By ignoring the existence and influence of the Christian fundamentalist movement within the Republican Party, Tierney is able to conflate theocracy and liberalism under the banner of "big government." While it's possible that's how Tierney and Sager see the world, it's also true that without the grassroots influence of fundamentalist churches, the Republican Party would never have gained control of all three branches of gtovernment. This is payback.
Big-government conservatism has helped bring some votes to the G.O.P., particularly in the South. But as Sager writes: “It’s not as if the Republican Party could do much better in the South at this point; it’s not really the ideal region to which to pander.”
"Big government conservatism" means not just the South, but the Bible Belt. It means not just some votes, but a country-wide "get out the vote" movement by fundamentalists. If Bush did indeed win the popular vote in 2004 (not a sure thing), it was because of the extra 3-4% turned out around the country by the movement. It was only with the active assistance of evangelicals after 1980 that Republicans began making gains.
The practical panderer should look West — not to the Coast, which is reliably blue, but to the purple states in the interior. Sager notes that a swing of just 70,000 votes in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico would have cost Bush the last election, and that he lost ground in the Southwest between 2000 and 2004.
All the more reason to pander. The unpopularity of the Bush Administration, as a whole, gave Kerry a chance to win, despite the fear tactics used by Republican strategists. It was the fundamentalist minions who put Bush over the top. This is an odd analysis of the last election.
The interior West is growing quickly, thanks to refugees from California seeking affordable housing. These Westerners have been voting Republican in presidential elections, but have also gone for Democratic governors. They tend to be economic conservatives and cultural liberals. They’ve legalized medical marijuana in Nevada, Colorado and Montana. They’re more tolerant of homosexuality than Southerners are, and less likely to be religious.
They’re suspicious of moralists and of any command from Washington, whether it’s a gun-control law or an educational mandate. In Colorado and Utah, they’ve exempted themselves from No Child Left Behind.
"No Child Left Behind" has many opponents and is based on some very debatable educational philosophy. This may be less a case of suspicion concerning commands from Washington, and more a case of opposition to a policy. Much like gun control. Tierney (and Sager most likely) is spinning the case that there's a libertarian majority in the United States just itching to take over the country. This is an extremely dubious idea.
They’re small-government conservatives who would have felt at home in the old fusionist G.O.P. But now they’re up for grabs, just like the party’s principles.
The old fusionist G.O.P. could not win national elections. The new one can, but now it's becoming clear that theocrats and libertarians cannot live together. However, if you throw out one or the other, the party can't win. Good luck guys.
August 31, 2006
A Guide for the Perplexed
By DAVID BROOKS
Perhaps, dear reader, you are perplexed. Perhaps you remember the scandal surrounding the outing of the C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame, a crime so heinous that her husband was forced to endure repeated magazine photo-shoots. Perhaps you remember Karl Rove’s face on the covers of magazines and newspapers, along with hundreds of stories and driveway stakeouts.
Perhaps you remember the left-wing bloggers foaming so uncontrollably at the thought of Rove’s coming imprisonment that they looked like little Chia Pets of glee. Perhaps you remember a city of TV bookers periodically canceling their lunch plans because of rumors that the Rove indictment was imminent, thus leaving behind a dangerous oversupply of salad entrees.
Perhaps the reader might also remember (but David Brooks wants you to forget) that Scooter Libby was indicted for his involvement in the case and the cover-up, and that Karl Rove was sufficiently convinced he would also be indicted that he temporary withdrew from his role as master Bush propagandist for several months. This wasn't just some sort of blogger fantasy.
Perhaps you remember how much this all mattered.
Let’s see: the Vice President’s Chief of Staff is indicted; the President’s right-hand man is running scared and can’t spin for several months, which drops the President’s ratings into the toilet. The investigation is STILL ongoing.
And yet now it has been revealed that the primary leaker was not Rove at all, but Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state. And this news produces no outrage at all. Nothing. A piffle. Perhaps you are wondering how this could happen.
David Corn, author of the book “Hubris,” which revealed Armitage’s role: “The Armitage leak was not directly a part of the White House's fierce anti-Wilson crusade. But as Hubris notes, it was, in a way, linked to the White House effort, for Armitage had been sent a key memo about Wilson's trip that referred to his wife and her CIA connection, and this memo had been written, according to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, at the request of I. Lewis Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. Libby had asked for the memo because he was looking to protect his boss from the mounting criticism that Bush and Cheney had misrepresented the WMD intelligence to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq.” So it turns out the Armitage leak isn’t producing outrage because it’s not really part of the story. However, the effort by the White House to discredit Wilson existed, and lies were disseminated about he and his wife. It seems likely that both Libby and Rove must have known who Novak’s leaker was (given that he was Rumsfeld’s Under Secretary as late as 2005), and they still panicked and covered up. Corn speculates that Fitzgerald himself knew within five days of starting the investigation. September 2: In fact, as Matthew Cooper pointed out in a Time Magazine article over a year ago, Karl Rove outed Plame to him with malice aforethought before Novak outed her to the world. It turns out Rove's comments to Cooper came three days after Armitage had told Novak, but no matter. Rove revealed the secret to Cooper, and he duly informed the Grand Jury, which is why so many people were convinced Rove would be indicted.
Well, dear reader, there are four things you must remember about your political class. First, there is a big difference between politically useful wrongdoing and politically useless wrongdoing, the core of which is that politically useless wrongdoing is not really wrongdoing at all.
Armitage apparently leaked Plame’s name without knowing it was classified. As Corn points out, since he was not part of the effort to discredit Wilson, there’s no real wrongdoing here.
Back in its glory days, the Plame affair was a way to expose the black heart of the Bush administration. It was used to support accusations by John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and other truth-seekers that the Bushies were so vicious they would use classified information to discredit anyone who dared to criticize them.
Actually, leaking Plame's name is pretty minor stuff compared to lying to get the country into war, calling anyone who disagrees with the Bush Adminstration a "traitor," illegally spying on American citizens, locking up people without due process, et al. Most people I know believe the Bush Administration is capable of far worse than leaking a spy's name.
Senator Frank Lautenberg accused Rove of treason. Howard Dean and a cast of thousands called for his firing. But now it turns out that the leaker cannot be used to discredit the president, that he was a critic of the Iraq war. And with the political usefulness of the scandal dissolving, a sweet cloud of indifference has settled upon the metropolis.
Armitage was one of the architects of the Iraq war. He only recently broke with Rumsfeld and company on the conduct of the occupation. Anyway, watch how Brooks now switches targets from Democrats and bloggers to the Washington Establishment.
Second, you must remember that a scandal is like a shipboard romance, and once it is gone, the magic can never return. Back at the height of the frenzy, big-time TV personalities were wondering if it was worse than Watergate (of sacred memory).
"Worse than Watergate" was a book by John W. Dean, whose latest book is titled "Conservatives Without Conscience." Dean wasn't talking about Plame. He was talking about the entire administration, its secrecy and its lies.
They were spinning impenetrable data points into conspiracy theories of calculus-level complexity. Of anonymous sources and wild allegations there was no shortage. Alleged felons were lined up and rhetorically shot.
When an ongoing investigation is subpoening high-ranking members of an administration, questions will be asked. Is the press supposed to be reticent?
The capital rode for a time on the delirious rapids of speculation. Everybody was wrapped in the Christmas Eve anticipation that comes over those who suspect that somebody more powerful than themselves is about to be brought low. But once the crack-buzz of scandal wears off, once the details are forgotten, the excitement can never be brought back. New information, even vital information, just seems like pointless residue from an embarrassing binge.
Third, character matters. Richard Armitage, as is often made clear, is the very emblem of martial virtue. Unlike the pencil-necked chicken hawks that used to bedevil him, he had his character forged in the heat of battle, amid the whir of bullets. And what he apparently learned is that if you keep quiet while your comrades are being put through the ringer, then you will come out fine in the end. Armitage did keep quiet as the frenzy boiled, and he will come out fine.
Once again, he did not know Plame’s name was classified when he revealed it.
Finally, you must always remember that it’s better to be One of Us than One of Them. Washington attracts a community of smart public-service-oriented people. This permanent community has its own set of mores. It’s important to be politically temperate. It’s important, even though you supported the Iraq war in 2003, to act as if you opposed it all along. Above all one must engage in the off-the-record gossip and background leaking that important people use to spin each other while pretending they are not spinning.
Members of the Washington community, like members of all decent communities, protect one another. Richard Armitage is a member of this community. Karl Rove is not. When a scandal hits One of Us, it is like Pepto-Bismol on an upset stomach. When a scandal hits One of Them, it’s like a match on gasoline.
Armitage sat as Donald Rumsfeld's right-hand man for five years; Karl Rove has sat as Bush's right hand man for six, yet one is an "insider" and one an "outsider"? When you've been sitting at the center of power for years, you are an insider. If Brooks is telling the truth here, it's certainly likely that what's really going on is that Karl Rove is hated deeply by the Washington establishment, which will glory in his fall from grace.
This paragraph also hides the point that Richard Armitage did not break the law, and he didn’t out Valerie Plame in order to discredit her husband. The investigation began on September 26, 2004, before Bush’s re-election, when Karl Rove was still riding high. It wasn’t until a year later, after Katrina, that the Administration went into eclipse, long after the speculation about Rove and others had begun. In other words, people weren’t on the anti-Bush bandwagon then and they weren’t trashing someone on the way down.
I hope, dear reader, I have explained some of the rituals of our political culture. And I hope you will not judge us harshly. We only destroy those who are unfashionable.
August 20, 2006
Cracking the Shells
By DAVID BROOKS
Fifty years ago, Grace Metalious touched a cultural nerve. She published “Peyton Place,” about the scandals, betrayals and lusts that lurk beneath the placid surface of a New England small town. “Peyton Place” became the best-selling novel in American history up to that time. It inspired a movie, a TV show and, as Leonard Cassuto notes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the modern soap opera as we know it.
Cassuto’s article compares the excesses of the Metalious novel (and subsequent film) with the happenings of “Desperate Housewives” and finds the latter to be a decadent version of the former. Good article, by the way. .
When critics write about “Peyton Place” today, they tend to see it as a premonition of the glorious achievements of the 1960’s. Some describe it as an early revolt against the repressive bourgeois order of 1950’s suburbia.
Using the same Google search David Brooks used: From the Bright Lights Big City film journal site, dated 2004: "With eerie accuracy, [Peyton Place] intimated the upcoming split in American society begat by Vietnam, rock and roll, and a new drug culture. You can hear the future calling in Peyton Place, with “generation gap,” “sexual revolution,” “women’s liberation,” and even “David Lynch” being whispered right around the corner.” From a 2003 FreeEssays piece: “The novel changed the way people viewed poverty, sexual abuse, and sex. Before, the performance of women during sex was more like a “grin and bear it” situation. It opened many new doors and gave a push for the sexual revolution and feminist movement. She introduced the issues of poverty, bigotry, the town drunk, and the town bully, underpaid teachers, and sexually repressed girls and boys.” Brooks ironic use of the phrase "glorious achievements of the 1960s" is gratuitous.
But “Peyton Place” was set in a rural town without radio, TV or much consumerism — with farms and outhouses instead of split-levels. This was the sort of supposedly quaint rural community people in the 1950’s were trying to get out of in order to flee to the suburbs.
Nope. The book is set in a rural town in the 1940s, though written in the ‘50s. The film is set in suburbia in the ‘50s. Brooks is mixing up the book and the film for his own ends.
Others see “Peyton Place” as a precursor to feminism and the baby boomers’ invention of the female orgasm, which apparently took place at Woodstock. It’s true that much of the action in the novel is initiated by strong women. But Metalious treats their strength and sexuality as obvious features of human society, and clearly rejects the notion that to be a woman is to be a member of a cause or the sisterhood collective.
Given that all the reviews I've discovered (those cited above and others) do not say anything of this sort, Brooks is attacking a straw man..
In truth, the first striking fact about the book is that in its pages the personal is not political. After the class consciousness of the 1930’s, and the national solidarity of the 1940’s, Americans in the 1950’s were inclined to define problems in moral and psychological terms, not as the products of economic or political forces.
Writer Mavis Gallant once said that the only people who ever argued that art could be apolitical were right-wingers. She didn't know why; she just observed that it was so. Brooks is arguing the book is apolitical, an argument leftists would find silly. For a leftist, all art is political in one way or another. Besides, and more importantly, most successful fiction derives from moral and psychological contexts, not from political or economic ones --- which is the difference between art and polemic. Brooks is arguing another straw man here because this isn't about the 1950s, rather it's about how and why fiction works.
And a big anxiety of the age was the fear of conformity. This was expressed in books about other-directed personalities, lonely crowds and Organization Men, not to mention all those movies in which James Dean, Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck bravely stood apart from the mob.
Tasting affluence, worried about the power of advertising, troubled by pervasive racism, Americans fixated on the power of social pressure, and the way individual autonomy could be inhibited by the judgments of the crowd.
And this isn't political? Of course the people in the novel aren't thinking or speaking in political terms, but that doesn't mean that political context doesn't exist.
This is what “Peyton Place” is about. It’s about the fear of being talked about in a small town, and how people act and lie to themselves in order to avoid being the subject of gossip.
One woman leads a life of frigid respectability because she’s afraid that if she loosens up people will discover she is not a widow; the father of her daughter was in fact a married man with whom she was having an affair. Another character fakes war medals to hide his battle fatigue.
“Peyton Place” is what George Orwell called a good bad book because it doesn’t just instruct readers to discover their authentic selves so they can be free to be you and me. That bit of naïveté wouldn’t become popular until the 1970’s, a more innocent decade than the 1950’s. Metalious reminds readers that some people’s authentic selves are truly rotten. The most authentic character in the book rapes his stepdaughter.
George Orwell, in trying to define good bad books: “Perhaps the supreme example of the “good bad” book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true.” Good bad literature exists because “one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously.” Brooks seems to be saying (if I've got it right, and that's a whole other issue with Brooks in general) that the reason the book struck a nerve is because the story concerned moral absolutism, good and bad people doing good and bad things (i.e. people have personal responsibility for their own actions), and that readers in the 1950s, living in that same world, identified with that philosophy.
The problem with Brooks' argument is that moral absolutism of the kind he suggests forms a key element of soap operas today, from "Desperate Housewives" on through "Lost" and even "Battlestar Galactica," and certainly forms a basis of most mystery and suspense novels whether written by conservatives or progressives or read by both. Readers cherish moral absolutism not because they believe in it necessarily, but because of its clarity --- fiction is so much easier to morally decipher than real life. Brooks' argument takes a further hit when one undersands that most readers viewed "Peyton Place" as voyeuristic fantasy --- such a place couldn't REALLY exist --- despite, as Cassuto points out, the fact that Metalious herself was ostracized from her New Hampshire community presumably for hitting too close to home.
Metalious’s core message is not that everybody can be good, but that everybody should engage in the high-risk search for unpleasant truths. She has her favorite character define two kinds of people: “Those who manufactured and maintained tedious, expensive shells, and those who did not. Those who did, lived in constant terror lest the shells of their own making crack open to display the weakness that was underneath, and those who did not were either crushed or toughened.”
Metalious herself may nor may not have agreed with this character. The important thing to remember, though, is that this is a character in a novel, not an author writing an essay. A serious discussion of the relationship of Grace to her characters, written as a high school or college paper, can be found here. While many particulars of Metalious' own life are found in the biography of Alison, the essayist makes clear that much of Grace can be found in many of her characters. Whether Brooks is accurate in Metalious' "core message" (assuming she had one) should best be left to those with the stomach to sit through the book.
This message obviously hit home in the 1950’s. The biggest change between then and now is that the whole tradition of moral and cultural commentary, so prevalent then, has been swallowed up by politics. Today, it’s hard to find writers who define social problems as matters of intellectual rigor — at least since Christopher Lasch and Allan Bloom died.
Brooks is assuming it was Metalious' "message" that hit home in the 1950s, rather than the voyeurism inherent in the best trashy soap operas.
Christopher Lasch and Allan Bloom were both liberals who grew more conservative as time went on. Bloom was a disciple of neocon idol Leo Strauss and mentor to right-wing dandy Alan Keyes. Lasch started with Marx and finished with the National Review. Both were living embodiments of neo-conservative thought. No mistaking Brooks' neocon roots here.
That's just what we need now: more neocon deep thinkers. Sigh.
Now we have our moral arguments by proxy, by debating who is more hateful, Bush or Clinton, or whether Terri Schiavo should live or die.
This is part of the "Bush-haters" frame that really doesn't exist. Progressives despise this Administration; hatred of Bush is really beside the point. No one is arguing whether Bush or Clinton is more hateful. The Schiavo example is more interesting. Brooks phrases the debate "Should Terri Schaivo live or die?" ostensibly as a proxy for a discussion about the moral implications of "pulling the plug." In fact, progressives did not talk about those moral implications. Their argument wasn't whether Schaivo should live or die, but who had the right to make that decision, her husband or Congress.
In today’s debates the battle lines are more clearly drawn, and since people are organized into factions, there’s actually more conformity and complacency than even in the 1950’s.
Brooks is setting the frame that both right and left wings have equivalent conformist factions, which is simply not true. Conformity does exist in the right-wing movement, those whom John W. Dean calls "authoritarian followers." However, Dean says, the left wing has no such conformity because those on the left are not "authoritarian followers," which is why Democrats have so much difficulty staying "on message." Dean attributes this difference to personality types, while cognitive linguist George Lakoff attributes it to differences in framing (the "nurturant parent" frame vs the "strict father" frame). In any case, there's less conformity and hardly any complacency amongst Democrats of all stripes, from the far left to the DLC. Brooks knows this, but he's working hard to echo the "similarities between extreme right and extreme left" frame.
That’s why there remains something bracing and clear-eyed about Grace Metalious, who only wrote soap operas — and lived them. The success of “Peyton Place” busted up her ambitious life and she drank herself to death at age 39.
August 13, 2006
The Culture of Nations
By DAVID BROOKS
Diplomats in New York rack up a lot of unpaid parking tickets, but not all rack them up at the same rates. According to the economists Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, diplomats from countries that rank high on the Transparency International corruption index pile up huge numbers of unpaid tickets, whereas diplomats from countries that rank low on the index barely get any at all.
Between 1997 and 2002, the U.N. Mission of Kuwait picked up 246 parking violations per diplomat. Diplomats from Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Syria also committed huge numbers of violations. Meanwhile, not a single parking violation by a Swedish diplomat was recorded. Nor were there any by diplomats from Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway or Canada.
From Fisman and Miguel::"The act of parking illegally fits well with a standard definition of corruption, i.e. “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” One does wonder, however, how American diplomats would fit into this scenario, given the high level of corruption within the Bush Administration along with the current insistence that economic success overrides moral precepts. The authors, who view the U.S. as a “low corruption” country, postulate that over time, as diplomats get used to American morals, their illegal parking rate would tend to decrease. In fact, the reverse is the case. The authors drop the postulation rather than examine their premise from any other angle, i.e. American attitudes toward parking laws or American attitudes toward laws in general.
The reason there are such wide variations in ticket rates is that human beings are not merely products of economics. The diplomats paid no cost for parking illegally, thanks to diplomatic immunity. But human beings are also shaped by cultural and moral norms. If you’re Swedish and you have a chance to pull up in front of a fire hydrant, you still don’t do it. You’re Swedish. That’s who you are.
That’s Brooks talking out of his ass. The authors suspect this is the case, but do not go further than that. In fact, they offer several alternate reasons why these illegal parking rates occur, including pro/anti views in the U.S., the possibility of public opprobrium at home if such illegality were to come to light, and lax/strict enforcement of parking at home (“[these violations] are certainly consistent with the view that home country enforcement was typically weak or nonexistent.”)
Walter Lippmann got to the crux of the matter in a speech 65 years ago. People don’t become happy by satisfying their desires, he said. They become happy by living within a belief system that restrains and gives coherence to their desires:
“Above all the other necessities of human nature, above the satisfaction of any other need, above hunger, love, pleasure, fame — even life itself — what a man most needs is the conviction that he is contained within the discipline of an ordered existence.”
People need the coherence their culture provides and value it even more than easy parking.
For several decades a veteran foreign aid worker, Lawrence E. Harrison, has contemplated the power of culture in shaping behavior. He’s concluded that cultural differences mostly explain why some nations develop quickly while others do not.
While Harrison himself may not have specific ties to right-wing foundations and funding sources, his primary blurb writers, Samuel Huntington, with whom he co-authored “Culture Matters,” and Francis Fukuyama, certainly do --- an Amazon reviewer adds the name of right wing pundit Thomas Sowell to the list of Harrison/Huntington adherents. We're back in the world of the right-wing academic and financial hydra.
All cultures have value because they provide coherence, but some cultures foster development while others retard it. Some cultures check corruption, while others permit it. Some cultures focus on the future, while others focus on the past. Some cultures encourage the belief that individuals can control their own destinies, while others encourage fatalism.
In a new book, “The Central Liberal Truth,” Harrison takes up the question that is at the center of politics today: Can we self-consciously change cultures so they encourage development and modernization? Harrison is writing about poverty, but this is incidentally a book about the war on terror, and whether it is possible to change culture in the Middle East and the ghettos of Muslim Europe.
On the one hand, Harrison is an optimist. He has taken his title from one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s greatest observations: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
But when Harrison turns to how politics can change culture, you find he is a man who has been made aware of the limitations on what we can know and achieve. Harrison and a team of global academics studied cultural transformations in Ireland, China, Latin America and elsewhere. They concluded that cultural change can’t be imposed from the outside, except in rare circumstances. It has to be led by people who recognize and accept responsibility for their own culture’s problems and selectively reinterpret their own traditions to encourage modernization.
Harrison observes that gigantic investments in education, and especially in improving female literacy, usually precede transformations. Chile was highly literate in the 19th century, and in 1905, 90 percent of Japanese children were in school. These investments laid the groundwork for takeoffs that were decades away.
Harrison points to many other factors — leaders who encourage economic liberalization, movements that restrict the power of the clerics — but the main impressions he leaves are that cultural change is measured in centuries, not decades, and that cultures are separated from one another by veils of complexity and difference.
If Harrison is right, it is no wonder that young Muslim men in Britain might decide to renounce freedom and prosperity for midair martyrdom. They are driven by a deep cultural need for meaning.
Obviously Harrison parts ways now the Bush Administration. From the Written Voices website: Harrison rejects the Bush administration's doctrine that "the values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society." Thus nations like Iraq and Afghanistan -- where illiteracy, particularly among women, and mistrust are high and traditions of cooperation and compromise are scant -- are likely to resist democracy.” We can now see why David Brooks loves this guy. If cultures must change internally, then lower class American culture can never be “fixed” through affirmative action or monetary assistance (even for schooling). It must come from within, and it isn’t up to anybody to change it except those within the culture.
But it is also foolish to think we can address the root causes of their toxic desires. We’ll just have to fight the symptoms of a disease we can neither cure nor understand.
Brooks is inferring here not only that the only thing to do with Muslim culture is fight it, but he's also inferring that the same is true of the culture of American poverty.
The thing is this, though: If you buy the idea that culture can be changed externally, then it makes sense to change the culture of poverty and race within the United States through whatever cultural or financial means necessary. Brooks doesn't buy that. However, if you don’t buy that idea, then the neocon argument about remaking the world in the American image is fallacious and Iraq should never have been invaded in order to bring about democracy. Brooks can’t have it both ways.
August 10, 2006
Party No. 3
By DAVID BROOKS
The Republican talking point, which has been reiterated over and over so many times in the past couple of weeks that it could pass for a Buddhist mantra, is that the Lamont victory means the "whacko left" and its bloggers have taken over the Democratic Party. It's propagandistic nonsense.. Most Democrats, many independents, and even a few Republicans view the fundamentalist-neocon-archconservative alliance that’s running the United States government as an authoritarian cabal anathema to democracy and American ideals. In that respect, the Lieberman loss can more easily be seen as a repudiation of that cabal and its minions, apologists and appeasers.
As Bob Herbert says in today’s Times: “The war in Iraq will be remembered as one of the greatest exercises in systematic governmental deceit in U.S. history. But the Iraq fiasco is just the most stunning and tragic example of a style of governing and politicking that has become second nature to the Bush administration and much of the national Republican establishment….These are folks who will tell you that up is down, and punish you for insisting that up is up.” This is what Democrats in Connecticut were voting against because Joe Lieberman was in league with those people..
There are two major parties on the ballot, but there are three major parties in America. There is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the McCain-Lieberman Party.
John McCain is an extremely conservative Republican who until recently maintained a streak of independence. Joseph Lieberman has always proposed himself as a moderate-to-liberal kind of guy. If these guys belong in the same party, then one or both were elected under false pretenses.They do share a similar neocon view toward foreign policy, but that's not enough to be part of the same political party. For most of the past century, Vietnam notwithstanding, both parties have been in virtual lockstep regarding foreign policy. ..
All were on display Tuesday night.
The Democratic Party was represented by its rising force — Ned Lamont on a victory platform with the net roots exulting before him and Al Sharpton smiling just behind. The Republican Party was represented by its collapsing old guard — scandal-tainted Tom DeLay trying to get his name removed from the November ballot. And the McCain-Lieberman Party was represented by Joe Lieberman himself, giving a concession speech that explained why polarized primary voters shouldn’t be allowed to define the choices in American politics.
“Net roots” --- the frame echoes the Republican talking point. In point of fact, Lamont, as most people are aware, was endorsed by the New York Times, among other newspapers. The Al Sharpton comment is a cheap shot. By the way, Brooks has never been particularly upset about partisanship on the Republican side, particularly the viciousness exuded by the pundits and talk radio hosts. No, the only time he cries partisanship is when discussing the Democratic Party. This is why Democrats call the GOP the "Party of Projection.".
The McCain-Lieberman Party begins with a rejection of the Sunni-Shiite style of politics itself. It rejects those whose emotional attachment to their party is so all-consuming it becomes a form of tribalism, and who believe the only way to get American voters to respond is through aggression and stridency.
Brooks fails to mention that the climate of aggression and stridency started within the Republican Party, so much so that Barry Goldwater was planning to write a book about it shortly before he died. The “aggression and stridency” on the part of Democratic voters has to do with the inability of people like Lieberman to counter Republican authoritarianism. People to the left of the spectrum have had six years to be sick and frustrated by Bush Administration shenanigans.
The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalize their behavior by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverizing rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.
In other words, it would be better for Democrats to let Lieberman vote for Bush’s next Supreme Court nominee, who will turn this country into a de facto dictatorship of the Executive Branch. In David Brooks' world, Republican viciousness gets off scott free, but if Democrats have the temerity to oppose Bush and his policies, they're fanatics.
But the experience of DeLay and the net-root DeLays in the Democratic Party amply demonstrates that means determine ends. Hyper-partisans may have started with subtle beliefs, but their beliefs led them to partisanship and their partisanship led to malice and malice made them extremist, and pretty soon they were no longer the same people.
“Net-root DeLays”: more framing a la “Deaniacs” and “Deanites.”
The McCain-Lieberman Party counters with constant reminders that country comes before party, that in politics a little passion energizes but unmarshaled passion corrupts, and that more people want to vote for civility than for venom.
On policy grounds, too, the McCain-Lieberman Party is distinct. On foreign policy, it agrees with Tony Blair (who could not win a Democratic primary in the U.S. today):
Tony Blair's domestic policies would preclude him winning a Republican primary and his inability to get his face out of Bush's tush doesn't help him in Britain either.
The civilized world faces an arc of Islamic extremism that was not caused by American overreaction, and that will only get stronger if America withdraws.
I've separated this sentence from Brook's paragraph and must admit I missed it the first time. He's stating here (not suggesting) that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has had NOTHING to do with increasing Islamic extremism. This flies in the face of every piece of available data from polling around the world. That Islamic extremism will only get stronger if America withdraws is a very debatable point.
On fiscal policy, the McCain-Lieberman Party sees a Republican Party that will not raise taxes and a Democratic Party that will not cut benefits, and understands that to avoid bankruptcy the country must do both.
Far from not raising taxes, the Republican Party has been cutting taxes for the wealthy right and left. McCain has been part of that effort. The Democrats have worked overtime trying to keep Republicans from cutting benefits, and they haven't succeeded. Lieberman is taking some of the blame for that failure.
On globalization, the McCain-Lieberman Party believes that free trade reduces poverty but that government must invest in human capital so people can compete. It believes in comprehensive immigration reform.
Both David Brooks and Thomas Friedman agree with this paragraph. Does that mean they belong in the same party?
The McCain-Lieberman Party sees Democrats in the grip of teachers’ unions and Republicans who let corporations write environmental rules.
The teacher's unions form a tiny part of Democratic Party policy. On the other hand, the Republican Party has handed over all corporate regulation to the corporations themselves, from environmental rules to workplace protections. The two are not equivalent, and most likely neither McCain nor Lieberman view them as such.
It sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test.
The Republican Party acheived ascendancy by inventing the culture wars in order to bring fundamentalists activists into their party. Abortion is only a litmus test because Republicans are intent on overthrowing Roe v. Wade. It should be remembered that no matter how Brooks phrases this column, he's still a solid Republican.
It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.
The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarizing our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)
"Lamont's voters are rich, and 65 % call themselves liberals" = the latte-drinking elite frame coupled with the use of liberal as a dirty word. Actually, those 65% call themselves progressives, and the "rich Lamont voters" spin is Brooks talking out of his ass.
The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here. John McCain and Hillary Clinton will try to reconcile their centrist approaches with the hostile forces in their own parties. And maybe they will succeed (McCain has a better chance, since the ideologues on the right feel vulnerable while the ideologues on the left, perpetually two years behind the national mood, think the public wants more rage).
Republicans desperately need the fundamentalist forces to get out the vote. Democrats, on the other hand, were willing to have DLC presidential candidates in 2000 and particularly in 2004 in order to throw out the authoritarians.. It hasn’t demonstrably worked, yet the left, who function from a rationalist perspective, will probably continue to buy the idea that the only nationally electable Democrats are the DLC folks.
But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years — the continuing jihad, Speaker Pelosi, a possible economic slowdown — the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.
At that point things really get interesting.
Most progressives see "McCain-Liebermanism" as a positive step within the Republican Party. It's only when McCain-Liebermanism runs actual progessives out of the Democratic Party and cozies up to Bush-Cheneyism that progressives rebel in order to avoid what Gore Vidal quips is "a one-party state with two right wings." Still, if Democrats can be convinced that a Lieberman type can ensure victory over someone like Bill Frist, theyll vote for him (or her) in the primary. The only way McCain can get the Republican nomination is by having his whole body dunked in fundamentalist holy water (if there were such a thing).
August 8, 2006
Sinful Second Homes
By JOHN TIERNEY
August 10: Republican Talking Point Alert. Material in this column was published in USA Today in a somewhat different form as "Gore Isn't Quite as Green as He's Led the World to Believe" by Hoover Institution shill Peter Schweitzer. When it comes to Republican talking points, there are no coincidences.
At first glance, this column seems to be about hypocrisy, particularly the hypocrisy of environmentalists. But it's really about framing. The Right Wing has been marginalizing the environmental movement for years by mocking it as a whacky religion, full of tree-huggers and other loonies, and by slamming its "preachers" as hypocritical. Which is what Tierney does here. The truth is that it isn't a religion. Global warming is real, and environmentalism today is mostly about education.
Come August, there are two kinds of people in the world: those with country homes, and those without country homes. If you, unlike me, are in the first group, we need to have an inconvenient talk.
We need to talk about your “carbon footprint,” a concept you may have learned from Al Gore. If you’ve seen “An Inconvenient Truth” or read the best-selling book, you know how strongly he feels about everyone’s duty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He advises you to change your light bulbs, insulate your home, and cut back on driving and air travel. If you must make a trip, he notes helpfully, “buses provide the cheapest and most energy-efficient transportation for long distances.”
Fine advice, and it would be even better if he journeyed to his lectures exclusively on Greyhound. But he seems to prefer cars and planes. When you tally up his international travel to inspect melting glaciers and the domestic trips between his homes — one in Washington and another in Nashville, not to mention the family farm in rural Tennessee featured in the movie — you’re looking at a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint.
The hypocritical preacher frame. However --- Gore is not preaching, he's educating. He's explaining why buses are the best way to travel in terms of energy efficiency and cost. It's your decision which route to take (By the way, in terms of global warming, some environmentalists suggest that the cloud cover caused by airplane contrails may more than offset carbon usage, making airplanes the best way to travel long distances at present). Gore is not telling us we MUST take buses or go to hell. He’s saying that buses happen to provide the cheapest and most energy-efficient transportation for long distance.
No matter how many fluorescent light bulbs you install in your second home’s basement, you could save a lot more energy by eliminating the whole place. Even if you dutifully shut down each home when you leave it — turning off the electricity, draining the pipes and turning off the heat, etc. — you’re still expending extra energy commuting between your homes. A trip to a weekend house can easily burn more gasoline than a commuter uses all week.
Tierney is saying that environmentalists are all hypocrites in their religion if they don't torture themselves by sweating in the summer, taking buses, being miserable. The fact, once again: it's not a religion, and these aren't preachers.
Individuals can all do their part. As it happens, the best way to cut your own transportation carbon emissions by 70% is to buy either the Honda Insight or Civic Hybrid, or the Toyota Prius (or, in a more radical perspective, cut them 100% by buying a bike and using public transportation). But mostly, governments must do their part by ending the reign of coal-burning power plants and changing the way corporations do business. In terms of Tierney's specific complaint: if you're heading to the Hamptons or the mountains for the weekend, you're saving energy by not using your air conditioning at home. So there.
Yet somehow, in all the years I’ve been reading lists of energy-saving tips, I’ve never noticed, “Sell second home.” A cynic might attribute this oversight to a high correlation between fervent environmentalism and second-home ownership — Robert Redford and his place at Sundance, the Kennedys and their compound on the Cape, Laurie David and her home on Martha’s Vineyard, John Kerry’s seaside and mountainside manses.
More of the hypocrite preacher frame.
Granted, some environmentalists deal publicly with their carbon footprints. Gore and David say they offset their energy usage by sponsoring reductions in greenhouse gases through alternative forms of power and energy conservation (like building wind farms and paying farmers to turn methane into electricity). But are “carbon offsets” sufficient compensation? Not to activists like Charles Komanoff, an economic consultant to environmental groups.
Charles Komanoff is an eco-activist economist, not a politician or movie star. He thinks not enough is being done to save the planet and as an activist is working hard to ensure the automobile is de-emphasized and that America retool its energy needs. The idea that Tierney is using him to emphasize the "environmentalism as religion" frame is disgusting.
He argues in Grist, an environmental magazine, that paying a penny or so per mile to offset the carbon from driving your car isn’t the moral equivalent of riding your bike instead.
Notice the phrasing: the moral equivalent. This is NOT a morality story. Gore is not a preacher, and neither is Komanoff. This is not religion. The idea of paying for your carbon usage isn’t about morality: it’s about making one pay for usage, and thus being held financially accountable, not morally accountable. There are problems with this, as Komanoff does point out, which involve seeing carbon payment as somehow equivalent to using the energy. It's not, which is why the plan itself is flawed --- though some suggest it's the best one out there at present for making people responsible for their carbon usage.
It’s more like the Catholic Church’s old system of selling indulgences so the rich could avoid something scarier than global warming: purgatory. Quoting Gandhi — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — Komanoff says his fellow environmentalists should stop offering “get out of purgatory free” cards to the rich and instead insist that everyone personally reduce energy use.
Komanoff says: "the purchase of carbon offsets smacks of the same corruption that turned indulgences into "get out of Purgatory free" cards and helped set off the Protestant Reformation." He's speaking metaphorically. Tierney is taking him literally to augment the frame.
I’m not such a purist myself — I’d let the average person salve his conscience with a carbon indulgence. But I’d hold environmentalist preachers like Gore to higher standards, especially when they’re engaging in unnecessary energy use. And since I cannot afford a second home, I can objectively determine it to be unnecessary.
Once again the frame: "environmentalist preachers." Preachers = Religion. Energy-using preachers = hypocrites. Hypocritical preachers = false religion..
If you’re going to own a second home while ordering everyone else to carpool, you must atone for your excesses, and it’s not enough just to offset the carbon. Gaseous emissions aren’t the only externalities of your home. By owning it, you’re also inducing envy in your neighbors. You’re contributing to the competitive urge that the economist Robert Frank calls “luxury fever.” When you go off for the weekend, those of us left sweltering in the city start lusting for our own second homes. We start dreaming of cutting down carbon-dioxide-absorbing forests to make room for neo-Adirondack cabins with central air and heated pools.
The best way to tamp our enthusiasm — or, I as prefer to put it, to reward our virtue — would be with money. Besides paying farmers not to waste methane, you should be paying us not to build second homes. You could make the payment directly to your neighbors. Or, if you prefer, mail it to me, and I’ll distribute it among the worthiest of my fellow single-home owners.
If you’re short on cash, you could still atone with an in-kind payment: let me stay in your country home while you perform your energy-saving penance back in the city. It wouldn’t have to be a long penance. By my calculations, the month of August would just about wipe out your sins
August 6, 2006
Alan Beggerow responds to the below column and commentary. See Letters page.
August 3, 2006
By DAVID BROOKS
Start with a questionable premise, then follow it up with really questionable conclusions, and you’ve got this column.
In all healthy societies, the middle-class people have wholesome middle-class values while the upper-crust bluebloods lead lives of cosseted leisure interrupted by infidelity, overdoses and hunting accidents. But in America today we’ve got this all bollixed up.
Premise One: Wrong. Societies in which the upper-crust bluebloods live lies of cosseted leisure tend to be societies of gross inequality: think the Saudi Royal Family; think France before the Revolution; think the Soviet Nomenclatura. These are not healthy societies: they’re sick ones. Brooks isn’t really referring to those, however. He’s referring rather to the belief structure we see in old Hollywood films about the wealthy. Problem is, it’s not real.
Through some screw-up in the moral superstructure, we now have a plutocratic upper class infused with the staid industriousness of Ben Franklin, while we are apparently seeing the emergence of a Wal-Mart leisure class — devil-may-care middle-age slackers who live off home-equity loans and disability payments so they can surf the History Channel and enjoy fantasy football leagues.
Premise two: Brooks is making this up. Surveys actually show that the middle class is working harder than ever to make ends meet, usually with two wage-earners rather than the “traditional” father figure. Those making over $100,000 are working harder than ever just to keep up. These aren’t the plutocrats, though. They have no power and they’re losing ground. The real plutocrats, the society lawyers and CEOs and such, may work a great deal of the time, but it’s at Club Med or in Hawaii or in posh resorts and restaurants around the world: The so-called "middle-age slackers" he's referring to are mostly signle guys in their mid-fifties who have been squeezed out of the workforce. In the old days, they were referred to as "early retirees."
For the first time in human history, the rich work longer hours than the proletariat.
Depends on what you call work. It’s true that at the top end of the career spectrum, people are on-call 24/7. That’s the price you pay, but the compensations more than make up for it. Ten years ago, I spent a weekend being wined and dined at a paper mill in northern Maine. Along with way, I took a private jet from Chicago to Presque Isle and a limo north. Slept in a gorgeous country inn; had the world’s largest lobsters for dinner. Had some meetings, took a tour of a paper factory followed by a helicopter ride over a managed forest. Leisure time was at a minimum, but the perks were phenomenal. Tough life, that. Oh yeah, the private jet was WAAAY cool.
Today’s super-wealthy no longer go off on four-month grand tours of Europe, play gin-soaked Gatsbyesque croquet tournaments or spend hours doing needlepoint while thinking in full paragraphs like the heroines of Jane Austen novels. Instead, their lives are marked by sleep deprivation and conference calls, and their idea of leisure is jetting off to Aspen to hear Zbigniew Brzezinski lead panels titled “Beyond Unipolarity.”
Followed by an afternoon of skiing, dinner at an expensive bistro, a cabaret show and free drinks. But that's really not the point. The proletariat is working harder than ever to stay afloat: the people Brooks talks about are, once again, early retirees.
Meanwhile, down the income ladder, the percentage of middle-age men who have dropped out of the labor force has doubled over the past 40 years, to over 12 percent. Many of the men have disabilities. Others struggle to find work. But in a recent dinner-party-dominating article, The Times’s Louis Uchitelle and David Leonhardt describe two men who are not exactly Horatio Alger wonderboys.
Here is the article. Once again, these are EARLY RETIREES. Policemen, firemen, army officers all lead similar lives at similar ages but David Brooks wouldn't call them slackers. Why? Because these folks have pensions and don't live off savings or disability. He's cherry-picking to make his points about the immorality of laziness.
Christopher Priga, 54, earned a six-figure income as an electrical engineer at Xerox but is now shown relaxing at a coffee shop with a book and a smoke while waiting for a job commensurate with his self-esteem. “To be honest, I’m kind of looking for the home run,” he said. “There’s no point in hitting for base hits.”
Priga was a middle manager, and before that a computer programmer --- not an “electrical engineer" --- and as such, when he was laid off (as he had been in the past), he’d go out for the head-hunter, do the whole job search, get the six-figure income, get laid off. He got tired of it, began working as a free-lancer designing web pages. Last time he went to the headhunters, nothing happened, so he was forced into early retirement.
Alan Beggerow, once a steelworker, now sleeps nine hours day, reads two or three books a week, writes Amazon reviews, practices the piano and writes Louis L’Amour-style westerns. “I have come to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me,” he said.
His wife takes in work as a seamstress and bakes to help support the family, as they eat away at their savings. “The future is always a concern,” Beggerow said, “but I no longer allow myself to dwell on it.”
Beggerow may have been at one time a steelworker, but along the way he became a writer and teacher. He said he’d take more work “in a minute” if it was like the work he’d spent the last five years doing. At present, he can get by without getting a crappy job he hates for lousy money. Why is this a rejection of traditional values? We all know a lot of people who hold out as long as they can until the right job comes along --- or until they run out of money. This isn’t all that new. The only difference is that the good jobs have dried up, so there are more people doing it. Should Beggerow work as a barister at Starbucks for minimum wage? What would be the point?
At one time it's likely Beggerow would have started his own business: a small bookstore, or perhaps a little magazine. But the latter is very difficult, and the former no longer a viable option in today's internet/chainstore world.
Many readers no doubt observed that if today’s prostate-aged moochers wanted to loaf around all day reading books and tossing off their vacuous opinions into the ether, they should have had the foresight to become newspaper columnists.
This is Brooks’ typical “I’m part of the problem” admission, which is his attempt to be self-deprecating. Notice how he switches from talking about guys with real problems getting decent jobs to calling them “prostate-aged moochers.” Well, Mr. Brooks, if you lost your gig and found you couldn’t get another, would you work as a barister at Starbucks for minimum wage, or would you eke out a living as a freelancer while mostly living off savings?
Others will note sardonically that the only really vibrant counterculture in the United States today is laziness.
But I try not to judge these gentlemen harshly.
No, you’re judging them very harshly. Because the article is really about the growing number of middle-aged men resigned to living outside the general workforce, the authors also discuss a 41 year old ex-con also having difficulty making ends meet, but trying to find odd jobs here and there. None of this is surprising: the so-called Bush "economic expansion" is death for middle-aged Baby Boomers used to decent salaries and positions.
What I see is a migration of values. Once upon a time, middle-class men would have defined their dignity by their ability to work hard, provide for their family and live as self-reliant members of society. But these fellows, to judge by their quotations, define their dignity the same way the subjects of Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” defined theirs.
They define their dignity by the loftiness of their thinking. They define their dignity not by their achievement, but by their personal enlightenment, their autonomy, by their distance from anything dishonorably menial or compulsory.
Bullshit. They avoid working for lousy wages at terrible jobs with minimal security for as long as they can. The authors point out that most of these male “drop-outs” are single; they have few familial responsibilities. If one can afford not to work at a terrible job and lousy wages, WHY DO IT? If getting a job is compulsory in order to stay alive, these men would get jobs.
In other words, the values that used to prevail among the manorial estates have migrated to parts of mass society while the grinding work ethic of the immigrant prevails in the stratosphere.
More bullshit. No immigrant will grind out crappy work for crappy pay if there were no future benefits. Middle-aged Americans are being outsourced and are having a tough time getting back into the workforce doing meaningful work for meaningful wages. At this point, the best thing David Brooks can do to prove his point would be to give his position to Alan Beggerow (who can probably do a better job anyway) and go out into the world and work as a Wal-Mart cashier. I'm sure Mr. Brooks will be quite happy with his moral standing and will work his ass off in his new life. Right?
This is terrible. It’s a blow first of all to literature. If P. G. Wodehouse were writing today, Bertie Wooster would be at Goldman Sachs and Jeeves would be judging a meth-mouth contest at Sturgis. Anna Karenina would be Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada.” “The House of Mirth” would become “The House of Broadband.”
More important, this reversal is a blow to the natural order of the universe. The only comfort I’ve had from these disturbing trends is another recent story in The Times. Joyce Wadler reported that women in places like the Hamptons are still bedding down with the hired help. R. Couri Hay, the society editor of Hamptons magazine, celebrated rich women’s tendency to sleep with their home renovators.
“Nobody knows,” he said. “The contractor isn’t going to tell because the husband is writing the check, the wife isn’t going to tell, and you get a better job because she’s providing a fringe benefit. Everybody wins.”
Thank God somebody is standing up for traditional morality.
July 30, 2006
Cease-Fire to Nowhere
By David Brooks
This is less a propaganda piece than a clear exegesis of the coldness of the neocon position. Based on a reading here, one can surmise that perhaps carburetor fluid runs in Brooks' veins, certainly not blood. There is dangerous propaganda here as well, which we’ll come to.
There are victory markers strewn across southern Lebanon commemorating the last time Israel withdrew from that land. While reporting a piece for The New Yorker a few years ago, Jeffrey Goldberg would come upon them by the roads. It was like seeing the battle markers at Gettysburg or Antietam, he wrote.
One brightly colored sign, written in both Arabic and (rough) English, marked the spot where “On Oct. 19, 1988 at 1:25 p.m. a martyr car that was body trapped with 500 kilograms of highly exploding materials transformed two Israeli troops into masses of fire and limbs.”
Busloads of tourists would take victory tours and stop at the prominent sights. Before the current war, there were gift shops and, in at least one place, a poster showing a Hezbollah fighter lifting a severed Israeli head. It all testified to the magnetism of a successful idea: that Muslim greatness can be restored through terrorism.
Gift shops, signposts and so on: Lebanon was at peace. That might seem like a bad thing to David Brooks, sitting in his leather easy chair in his safe mock tudor mcmansion in the United States, but for the people of Southern Lebanon and Northern Israel, it was a good thing.
Some people believe that terrorists are driven by desperation, but if you read the statements by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders, it’s obvious that their movement has been inspired by opportunity and nourished by success. And the big news last week was that most of the world is calling for an immediate Lebanese cease-fire and another Israeli withdrawal.
Israel was bombing Southern Lebanon back into the stone age, and a half million people had abandoned their homes as refugees. The whole world was crying for a cease-fire because of the carnage, on both sides.
If that happens, Nasrallah will be able to build another chain of victory markers. There will be a missile- launcher monument in Tyre. There will be a terror gift shop in Maroun al-Ras. Hell, he’ll probably build a suicide-bomber theme park in Bint Jbail.
So who cares? Monuments, gift shops, theme parks all happen in a peaceful place. If Nasrallah wants to start yet another war with Israel, that will all be wiped away. It's the war that counts, not the propaganda.
Nasrallah himself will become a legend, and teens across the region will be electrified by his glory.
Perhaps, or perhaps they’ll wake up to the fact that such gift shops, theme parks and monuments only exist because of the many people who died due to Nasrallah’s decisions. Or perhaps they’ll understand that gift shops, theme parks and monuments can only exist in a region when war doesn’t.
Many of those calling for this immediate cease-fire are people of good will whose anguish over the wartime suffering overrides long-term considerations. Some are European leaders who want Hezbollah destroyed but who don’t want anybody to actually do it. Some are professional diplomats, acolytes of the first-class-cabin fundamentalism that holds that “talks” and “engagement” can iron out any problem, regardless of the interests and beliefs and fanaticisms that make up the underlying reality.
Or maybe they’re people who understand that the interests and beliefs and fanaticisms that make up the underlying reality won’t go away, and perhaps it’s best to simply stop killing people and destroying property --- on both sides. How would Brooks feel from his home on the East Coast if someone was lobbing missiles at his house, or dropping bombs on his family? Would he be so sanguine about war, and about “collatoral damage”?
The best of them have a serious case to make. It’s true, they say, that Israel may degrade Hezbollah if it keeps fighting, but it may also sow so much instability that it ends up toppling the same Lebanese government that it is trying to strengthen.
That’s a pretty strong case.
They point to real risks, but if a cease-fire is imposed now, there won’t be only risks. There will be dead certainties. If Hezbollah emerges from this moment still strong, it will tower like a giant over the Lebanese government. Extremist groups around the world will be swamped with recruits. Iran’s prestige will surge. The defenders of nation states and the sponsors of Resolution 1559 will be humiliated. Israel’s deterrence power will be shattered.
Ah, the propaganda now. This isn’t a dead certainty. It’s also possible that Israel will emerge having shown Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that if they attack from suburbs, those suburbs will be destroyed. “Don’t fuck with us” seems to be what Israel is saying. But now they’ve made their point. What Brooks doesn’t get is that Hezbollah will remain strong even if all its missile sites are destroyed. The people in Lebanon now hate Israel with a passion for destroying their rebuilt land. Only a fool would think they’d turn on Hezbollah when it’s been Israel that has been doing the damage. Iran’s prestige has already surged. Israel is alone, but its deterrence power is clear.
It is dead certain that this cease-fire will not last, any more than the cease-fires of ’78 or ’93 or ’96 lasted. And most important, the idea — that the Muslim renaissance will come through terror — will dominate the sky like the bright summer sun.
That’s why these kind of arguments are bullshit. The other cease-fires didn’t last. This won’t, and neither will the next fifty. The point is to make the cease-fires last longer. This is an insoluble situation: Israel won’t go away, and neither will those who want to drive the Jews into the sea. So it will always be an uneasy peace. Those who think the conflict can be resolved by raining death on the inhabitants of the region just don’t get it.
That idea is the key to the whole string of crises in this decade of jihad. Lebanon is a chance to show that the death cult is not invincible.
This is the same argument the neocons used to invade Iraq, which was propagandized as a clear chance to show that tyranny in the Middle East is not invincible.
To its enormous credit, the Bush administration has kept its focus on that core reality, and it has developed a strategy to reverse the momentum: let Israel weaken Hezbollah, then build an international force to help create a better Lebanon.
Yet, having spent a week on the phone with experts and policy makers, I’d be lying if I said that I was optimistic the strategy will work. The renovation of Lebanon will require scaffolding, and the fact is the scaffolding of the West is corroding at every joint.
The U.S. lacks authority because of Iraq. Over the past few days, Israel has grown wary of getting into Lebanon, because it might have no help getting out. The Europeans, being the Europeans, are again squandering a chance to play a big role in world affairs. The “moderate” Arabs are finding that if you spend a generation inciting hatred of Israel you will wind up prisoner to groups who hate Israel more than you do. The U.N. is simply feckless.
The U.S. is right to resist the calls for a quick-fix cease-fire. But when you step back, you see once again the power of ideas. The terrorists are more unified by their ideas than we in the civilized world are unified by ours.
In other words, U.S. policy is right, but it won’t work. What kind of policy is right that doesn’t work? What planet does David Brooks live on?
July 9, 2006
The Liberal Inquisition
By DAVID BROOKS
For over a decade, Republican leadership in the House and Senate used the muscle of potential Primary opposition as well as withholding of party campaign funds to force moderate members to vote in lockstep with the radical right-wing plurality. The result is that people like Lincoln Chaffee, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe wound up voting for extremist positions in order to retain their seats. For these ten years, David Brooks has been silent in the face of such coercion.
Sometimes history comes with previews. In the 1930's, the Spanish Civil War served as a precursor to the global conflict that was World War II. And in a smaller fashion, the primary battle playing out on the smiling lawns of upscale Connecticut serves as a preview for the national conflict that will dominate American politics for the next two years.
Actually, the national conflict that has dominated American politics for the past six years and will continue to dominate it for the next two has been over a radical right-wing Administration’s use of authoritarian methods (from propagandistic punditry to threats of court action) to maintain and consolidate control over the United States government. The Lieberman story is a fairly minor one. But David Brooks has been flogging the dead horse of “Deanism” for the past few years, as if Howard Dean represented anything other than an attempt to get Democratic politicians awakened from their lethargy and fear.
This isn't a fight between left and right. It's a fight about how politics should be conducted. On the one hand are the true believers — the fundamentalists of both parties who believe that politics should be about party discipline, passion, purity, orthodoxy and clear choices. On the other side are the quasi-independents — the heterodox politicians who distrust ideological purity, who rebel against movement groupthink, who believe in bipartisanship both as a matter of principle and as a practical necessity.
Notice he says “both parties.” As with Brooks’ last column, he gains credence by referring to “we” rather than “they.” But columns such as this one are always about “they,” in this case Democrats. Again, a reminder: Never let your enemies define who you are.
In 2008, heterodox politicians like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and even Hillary Clinton are going to have to face zealous assaults from within their own parties. But for the moment that war has come to Joe Lieberman.
Notice the use of two Republican politicians to counter the two Democrats. However, the cases are not the same. McCain has been forced into being a Bush sycophant in order to have a shot at the 2008 nomination, and Giuliani hasn’t run for any national office at all. Clinton has been called on her refusal to have ANY position (or to take both positions) on the Iraqi occupation and possible withdrawal, putting even moderate Democrats in a bind. The Lieberman situation wouldn’t exist at all if Lieberman caved in to his party’s left wing, as McCain has to his party’s right.
What's happening to Lieberman can only be described as a liberal inquisition. Whether you agree with him or not, he is transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men. But over the past few years he has been subjected to a vituperation campaign that only experts in moral manias and mob psychology are really fit to explain. I can't reproduce the typical assaults that have been directed at him over the Internet, because they are so laced with profanity and ugliness, but they are ginned up by ideological masseurs who salve their followers' psychic wounds by arousing their rage at objects of mutual hate.
No, Joe Lieberman is not transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men. He has shown himself to be selfishly opportunistic since his very first election, when he used overwhelming amounts of money to defeat the idealistic and fiercely independent Lowell Weicker to become Senator. He showed himself to be selfishly opportunistic again during the 2000 election when he ran for Vice President AND Senator, knowing full well that had he won the higher office, his Senate seat would have been determined by an opposition party governor. He continues to show the same face when he chooses to run as an independent if defeated in the primary, even though it would likely cause the election by a plurality of a Republican in his place.
In addition, Lieberman’s outrage at Clinton’s sexual exploits knew no bounds, but the man has been utterly silent on a barrage of lies by the Bush Administration, lies that led to a war and occupation resulting in the death of a host of American soldiers.
Next has come the effort to expel Lieberman from modern liberalism. In a dark parody of the old struggle between Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, the highly educated, highly affluent, highly Caucasian wing of the Democratic Party has turned liberalism from a philosophy into a secular religion, and then sought to purge a battle-scarred warhorse on the grounds of insufficient moral purity.
This is no dark parody of the old McCarthy-Humphrey struggle. That came about because the Vice President at the time was forced to support the Vietnam War in face of overwhelming criticism in his own party, a support he gave up as soon as he was free to do so --- his ultimate loss was more about the convention debacle in Chicago than any split within the party. Lieberman is supporting a war generated by the opposition party, not his own, an opposition party in which all liberals have been expunged.
The rest of this paragraph is more of the old Republican right-wing frame of liberals as white latte-drinking elitists, and should be treated as the propaganda/lie that it is. Thomas Frank busts that frame in his book “What’s The Matter with Kansas.”
So these days, for example, one hears that Lieberman is a crypto-conservative, a Bible-Belter. In reality, of course, this is a man who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. He has a Christian Coalition rating of 0.
Joe Lieberman was the man who pushed bills during the Clinton years which paved the way for Enron, Worldcom and other scandals. His lifetime ADA rating is 70%, only 5% higher than that of neighboring state's Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, which puts him to the right of nearly all, if not all, northeastern Democratic Senators. Given his status as a practicing Orthodox Jew and an East Coast Democrat, it’s not in the least surprising he has a Christian Coalition rating of 0 (Chafee has a Coalition rating of 50%, but then, he’s a Republican). However, Brooks is not claiming that people are calling Lieberman a “conservative.” They’re calling him a “crypto-conservative,” a term they could also use to describe Landreau and both Nelsons. As far as being a “Bible Belter,” now really: the guy’s Jewish, and this is a strawman.
More to the point though, is the way in which Lieberman has stood by while the Bush Administration has acted in a mendacious and authoritarian manner. This has earned the enmity of many Democrats who watch in amazement as the so-called opposition party has allowed this semi-legitimate president run roughshod over the Constitution.
But a lifetime's record is deemed not to matter any longer. For in the midst of the inquisition all of American liberalism has been reduced to one issue, the war. Just as some edges of the pro-life movement reduce all of conservatism to abortion, the upscale revivalists on the left reduce everything to Iraq, and all who are deemed impure must be cleansed away.
Not true. Opposition to Lieberman is gathered around his support of Bush’s occupation, but as shown above, Lieberman’s policies as a whole are to the right of the core of the Democratic Party. Shouldn’t Democrats have a say as to who should represent them? Brooks thinks not.
Lieberman's opponent, Ned Lamont, has neither expertise in foreign affairs nor any specific knowledge of Iraq, and he has struggled to come up with a plan for what we should now do there. But that is not the point, for the opposition to Lieberman is not about future actions or even politics as it is normally understood. It is about impurity, the scarlet letter, and the need to expunge those who have transgressed.
Given his political position, the opposition to Lieberman is all about future actions and politics, including the Iraq occupation. With a relatively low ADA rating and vocal support for many of Bush’s policies, it would be surprising if there was no opposition within the party to his renomination. This is about being a Democrat who stands up in an era dominated by right-wing Republicans. Lieberman, on all fronts, has failed that test.
Liberal interest groups that seek practical goals, like the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the League of Conservation Voters, back Lieberman. But the netroots now seek to purge what's left of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, and to eliminate those who have had contact with the evildoers in the other party, because movements are deemed to prosper to the extent they achieve holiness unmarred.
Netroots= a new perjorative neologism from Brooks, echoing his partisan attack on the Daily Kos of a couple of weeks ago.
Ned Lamont is a strange vessel for all this passion. Based on the candidate debate Thursday night, he seems a genial if under-prepared politician who would be an innocuous presence in the Senate if he were elected to it.
The big story out of the campaign last week was the aggressiveness Lieberman has finally brought to his side of the fight. Over the past few years, polarizers have dominated Congress because people who actually represent most Americans have been too timid or intellectually vacuous to stand up. Even today many Democrats who privately despise the netroots lie low, hoping the anger won't be directed at them.-
The people not standing up have, for the most part, been Democrats, and the people they’ve not stood up to are members of the Republican majority and the semi-literate fratboy who serves as their leader. Many Democrats are scared of the grassroots opposition to them because they have rolled over too many times and are now being held accountable.
But Lieberman has had no choice but to fight, and he will probably prevail. If he doesn't, and if his opponents go from statewide victory in Connecticut to a national primary assault in 2008, then I hope the Republicans will be smart enough to scoop up what is sure to come — yet another wave of disaffected Democrats looking for a political home.
It might not be a bad thing if disaffected moderate Democrats turned to the Republican party. At least they might be able to purge it of its fascist elements. Not a bad thought, Dave.
July 8, 2006
The Environmental Procrastination Agency
By JOHN TIERNEY
Now that the Supreme Court has gotten itself into the global warming debate, the justices face a choice: Should they rule in favor of environmental groups, or in favor of the environment?
Typical right-wing sloganeering.
The court agreed last week to hear a case brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups seeking to empower the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from cars. To David Schoenbrod, the case sounds unfortunately familiar.
David Schoenbrod is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that frequently espouses right wing causes. The NRDC, on the other hand, has a leftist pedigree in its history, having been supported by the Tides Foundation. Schoenbrod was staff attorney for the NRDC in the 1970s. .
In 1972, as a lawyer for the council, he started the litigation that forced the E.P.A. to take lead out of gasoline. Technically, it was a victory for environmentalists, but it took so long that Schoenbrod decided his comrades in the movement had made a big mistake — the same mistake they're now making with carbon dioxide. They keep expecting the E.P.A. do an impossible job.
Is that the mistake Schoenbrod feels they made? Or is Tierney pulling this one out of his ass?
They still believe in the Spaceship Earth management style, as Schoenbrod describes it in his book, "Saving Our Environment from Washington." They still imagine the planet as a ship that must be guided by a wise captain, aloof from politicians and voters, who issues orders from the bridge with the help of his trusty crew of technocrats and lawyers.
Given the Bush Administration's politicization of every aspect of the Executive Brand, including the EPA, you have to wonder if the NRDC still implicitly believes this. However, the battle isn't over wise captains or trusty crews. The real question is whther CO2 is a pollutant. If it is, then the EPA has control over its regulation. If not, then that must be left to the states. The Bush Administration believes it is not a pollutant, and Bush has said as much, according to a New York Times editorial: The plaintiffs - a formidable collection of state governments and environmental groups - argue that the plain language of the Clean Air Act gives the government jurisdiction over "any air pollutant" that threatens "public health or welfare" and, further, that "welfare" specifically includes effects on climate and weather. This interpretation of the act was first set forth by President Clinton's EPA and stood as agency policy until Mr. Bush reversed it (without consulting his own EPA) in 2001.
"The idea in creating the E.P.A. was that only an expert agency insulated from politics can protect the public and the environment," says Schoenbrod, now a professor at New York Law School. "But what it really does is insulate Congress from responsibility for making tough choices. The legislators can take credit for passing laws protecting the environment, and the agency takes the blame for the inevitable delays and compromises and costs."
When the E.P.A. was created in 1970, Schoenbrod naïvely expected it to quickly deal with the known dangers of lead in gasoline. But the agency stalled through both Republican and Democratic administrations because neither party wanted to be blamed for hurting oil refiners or raising gasoline prices. The E.P.A. didn't get the job done until 1985, when it was politically expedient because the economics had changed and oil refiners favored getting rid of leaded gasoline.
The E.P.A. would have a far tougher time regulating carbon dioxide because the issue is so much more complicated than lead pollution. There isn't an obvious technical fix for bureaucrats to mandate. The potential sacrifices are enormous and would inspire at least a decade of wrangling and litigation. Any serious solution requires international cooperation. The only way to come up with a workable plan is for politicians to debate and negotiate.
However, some directives on the EPA’s part might make a difference. Ignoring CO2 as a pollutant won't make it go away. Plus, if politicians debate and negotiate, nothing will ever happen, particularly since the Bush Administration is pretending the science isn't real: (again the New York Times editorial) As for the science that the administration finds so shaky, the plaintiffs will argue that the science has grown steadily more persuasive since the Clean Air Act was last revised in 1990; that the administration has cherry-picked arguments about details while ignoring the vast preponderance of the evidence; and that the consensus among mainstream scientists - a consensus reinforced by a recent National Academy of Sciences report - is that the earth is inexorably heating up and that industrial emissions are largely responsible.
Schoenbrod's modest proposal for saving the environment is to strip the E.P.A. of its rule-making powers and convert it into an advisory and enforcement agency. It would do technical studies and make recommendations, leaving the lawmaking up to legislators — usually legislators outside Washington. Except for some large-scale problems, like acid rain or global warming, Schoenbrod thinks that most environmental questions should be settled at the state and local level.
His ideas, of course, are not popular in Washington. Corporate lobbyists find it easier to work behind the scenes at the E.P.A. than to conduct public fights on Capitol Hill or in state capitals. Environmental groups also prefer federalizing issues, partly because they've got centralized operations themselves, and partly because they espouse the "race to the bottom" theory: if Washington were to delegate power, the states would be so desperate to protect jobs and attract industry that they'd compete to have the weakest environmental rules.
But in practice, as Schoenbrod demonstrates, Washington stops local officials from racing to the top. After the dangers of lead were recognized in the 1960's, New York City began taking steps to encourage unleaded fuel, but it and other localities were pre-empted from passing stricter rules once that became the job of the E.P.A.
While Congress and the E.P.A. have been dithering about global warming, California is requiring carmakers to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide. New Hampshire has ordered power plants to restrict carbon dioxide and other pollutants. More than a dozen states, including Texas, require utilities to use renewable sources of energy.
While the Kyoto accord is dead in Washington, a coalition of Northeastern states is setting its own Kyoto-style limits on greenhouse emissions and establishing a market for trading carbon-dioxide credits.
If the states keep setting examples, Congress may finally feel enough pressure to do something itself on global warming. But if the Supreme Court decides to entrust that job to the E.P.A., don't expect any commands from the Spaceship's bridge any time soon.
Tierney may be right, though not necessarily for the reasons he lays out. As long as right-wing Republicans are in charge and politicization is everywhere, entrusting the EPA to regulate CO2 may mean not only that nothing will be done, but that (as has happened with other environmental regulations), national standards (or non-standards) could overrule attempts by the states to curb CO2 emissions. Funny about that.
July 6, 2006
The Missing Characters of Page One
By DAVID BROOKS
This column would be innocuous if the Bush Administration and its right-wing sycophants hadn’t spent the last couple of weeks bashing the New York Times, one of them, Melanie Morgan of San Francisco’s KSFO, apparently calling for the execution of the Editor in Chief. With Karl Rove back in charge of the Noise Machine and all that entails, one can reasonably ask if today's (or this week's) talking point is "Bash the Press, particularly the newsprint press, particularly the NY Times, the LA Times, and the Washington Post." David Brooks happens to be a member of the New YorkTimes staff, and a guy who works in newsprint. So he's got to go subtler, and this is more a mood piece than an outright bashing. You can't argue with the history he gives, nor even with his conclusions. But there's something not right here nonetheless.
By the way, careful examination of Brooks' technqiues reveals that he often includes himself in the discussion in order that it come off as a sheepish admission of guilt rather than an attack.
Twenty-five years ago when I was in Chicago beginning my career, I used to go to the Billy Goat Tavern to drink like a reporter. The Billy Goat — half relic, half tourist trap — was under Michigan Avenue between The Tribune and The Sun-Times. It had laminated articles, half-forgotten bylines, and pictures of dead reporters tacked all over the walls. I could sit and imagine I was breathing the same air that had been inhaled by George Ade, Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene Field and Mike Royko.
The golden age of Chicago journalism was just then coming to an end, the long tradition of urban realists who had treated Chicago the way Dickens had treated London. Ade, Algren and the rest didn't make their names writing about the city's leading figures. They filled their columns with stories about the small-time grafters, hustlers, bar-stool philosophers and other eccentric specimens they found in the working-class neighborhoods where many of them grew up.
It's hard to imagine now, but in Chicago, even 20 years ago, the working class was portrayed more vividly in the newspapers than the upscale consumer class, and workers weren't depicted as members of the noble but oppressed proletariat — objects fit for genteel compassion. The old neighborhoods were portrayed uncondescendingly, as scrambling menageries, where aspirations of lace-curtain respectability competed with the hoodlum's ethic: where's mine?
Reporters who covered this turf expected venality and took a connoisseur's delight in tales of petty greed. Royko wrote a column about one of the city's deputy coroners who was charging a line of visitors $5 each for a peek at a dead gangster. A cop came across another coroner as he was huffing and puffing to get a ring off a fresh corpse.
"Whadya think you're doing?" the cop asked.
The coroner was caught red-handed, so he turned to the cop and said unblushingly, "O.K., you can have the wristwatch."
Chicago came to define itself according to the deranged but lovable characters it read about in the morning press. There never was a town so shaped by journalism, or a better place to practice the trade. And the underlying message of all these column inches was that human beings are selfish connivers, on the make in ways big and small, and since the powerful have the capacity to grab more than the powerless, they always have to be challenged and opposed.
“Human beings are selfish connivers, on the make in ways big and small.” This isn’t the general view of the all members of the press, even those who practice their trade in Chicago. But it is the bottom-line philosophy of David Brooks and it says a lot about why he believes what he believes.
Unlike the well-meaning goo-goos along the lakefront, the reporters didn't believe the poor were nobler than the rich, they just practiced graft on a smaller scale.
This week, I happened to stop in at the Billy Goat, which hasn't changed a bit though the world above it is transformed. No American city has progressed as much in the past two decades as Chicago. It's richer, cleaner, more livable, more honest though less colorful than it was. The social conditions that underlay the urban realist reporting of the old days no longer exist.
Chicago is no longer the city of broad shoulders but of cultural workers. The newspaper-devouring working class no longer exists. The old neighborhoods are not as cohesive (or insular). A Daley is still mayor, but the machine is gone.
There is no real working-class consciousness in popular culture today. The city is now shaped by the suburbs. Slats Grobnik has given way to legions of grown-up Ferris Buellers.
Most of all, there has been the great upscalization. In 1981, Royko moved from his bungalow near Milwaukee Avenue to a high-rise along the lakefront, and that was really the death-marker of the old style. America's cultural tone is no longer set by aspiring working-class novelists who grew up above a tavern. It's set by globally savvy college grads, who, even if they visit the Billy Goat from time to time, see the world from a different vantage point.
What's changed Chicago has also changed journalism. Now journalism is the subject of academic disciplines and panel discussions. Newspapers are more cosmopolitan but less picturesque. Journalists are less novelistic and rely more on studies, statistics and social science. Now even writing about poverty is done from the perspective of the affluent educated class.
It's not completely wrong to say I went into journalism because of the ghosts I thought I felt at the Billy Goat, but it turns out that I, a soft-drinking college grad, was part of the wave of cultural change that buried what was created there. We've progressed, for better and worse.
Sot the press is not what it was, that it’s now…. elite and unresponsive to the poor and downtrodden. This does define the mainstream media, in particular broadcast journalism but the implication is that these are the latte-drinking liberal members of an elite that has lost its way. Like the editor of the New York Times.
June 29, 2006
One Nation, Under One Roof
By DAVID BROOKS
The American Revolution was fought in a climate of anticipation. Enlightened thinkers around the world hoped that America's new spirit of freedom would unleash a political, economic and cultural renaissance.
"A new Greece will perhaps give birth on the continent ... to new Homers," predicted the Abbé Raynal, the French philosophe. Horace Walpole speculated: "The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico."
It didn't end up quite that gloriously. Many of the 18th-century figures assumed that economic growth and cultural genius were part of one thing — progress — and that in an atmosphere of freedom they would rise together. But in America it became clear that commerce and culture were different things, and that while commerce surged, culture lagged.
Before long, people noticed that the United States had become divided into, as Van Wyck Brooks put it, "two publics, the cultivated public and the business public, the public of theory and the public of activity, the public that reads Maeterlinck and the public that accumulates money."
Still, throughout the 19th century these two publics did at least talk to each other. Both were obsessed with one subject: the meaning of America. Whether they were tycoons, politicians, theologians or artists, Americans of the 19th century tended to assume that history had a storyline, and that the United States had a distinct and climactic role in its unfolding.
Much of the conversation was about America's meaning and providential role. And this conversation is the subject of two fantastic museums that are reopening Saturday, after six years of renovation, in Washington.
The National Portrait Gallery tells the story of American history through its great personalities. The Smithsonian American Art Museum tells the story of its art. Through an accident of history, the two museums share a single building, the old Patent Office Building, which Walt Whitman called the noblest building in the city.
The museums have always existed uneasily together. Six years ago, the curators of the Portrait Gallery were furious because the Art Museum was taking advantage of the renovation to seize most of their building's best spaces. And even Tuesday, as the directors of the two museums led me around, there were moments of awkwardness, as they vied over tour routes, interpretations and which museum's tote bag I would use to hold the press materials.
But for the regular visitor, the end product is exhilarating. What you see within these two museums' interlocking spaces is the great conversation about the American identity. Here in the Art Museum are George Catlin's dignified portraits of Indians; there in the Portrait Gallery is a defiant bust of the Indian-fighter, Andrew Jackson. Here's an elegant painting by John Singer Sargent; there's a portrait of a slovenly P. T. Barnum. Here's a W.P.A. mural celebrating harmony and plenty; there's a portrait of the Scottsboro Boys.
There are jarring transitions between the two museums. And it's weird to be in a building with dueling narratives. But this is the cacophonous reality of America.
The building's finest spaces are on the third floor, where the two museums hold their material from the past 50 years. A lot of great stuff is there — including a mesmerizing David Hockney installation — but the conversation stops. The two museums no longer reverberate against each other.
That's because around 1960 the art world and much of the intellectual world lost faith in the idea that history has a storyline and that America has a distinct role in it. This week, Blake Gopnik spoke for the art establishment in his review of the museums in The Washington Post, arguing that there is no essentially American culture — no transcendent thing we Americans share simply because we happen to inhabit the same nation-state.
That’s playing fast and loose with Gopnik’s premises and conclusions. So why did Brooks single out this one particular piece, and then subtly misrepresent it? It could be that he sincerely disagrees with what Gopnik is really saying … or it could be that Brooks is being deliberately anti-intellectual, pitting conservatives with knee-jerk reactions to anything which might smack of anti-Americanism against the latte-drinking “elite” which the right-wing has used as its straw man for many years. Rather than trust in tBrooks’ interpretation, read the article.
So the artists have gone off to have a conversation about themselves. But most people who tour these museums will feel a transcendent thing called Americanness deep in their bones. They will understand what George Orwell meant when he said your country "is your civilization, it is you." And today, when America is unpopular and the whole concept of Americanness is encrusted with clichés and conspiracy theories, they'll feel thrilled to get back and touch the real America, the real conversation, which has been so triumphantly presented in the old Patent Office Building in downtown D.C.